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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

The In Between People

The construction of Northwest Métis – the post-contact Indigenous people bound together in part by endogamy of the communities centred on Red River, present-day Winnipeg, and exogamy with communities of similar culture and social background elsewhere on the northwestern prairies and parkland fringe – as "the people in between" is not new. But it isn't particularly old, either. The most blunt expression of it readily available for perusal at least in canada is Julia D. Harrison's booklet composed and published to accompany an exhibit on Northwest Métis culture at the Glenbow museum in calgary. Nevertheless, variants of it appear regularly and without much by way of challenge in histories of what is currently called western canada right into the early 2000s. It depends and calls upon an understanding of Northwest Métis as "mixed bloods" whose clashing usually french or english plus Indigenous heritage put them in untenable positions with their parent societies. For a very long time, it was taken as given that "race" was not only real at least as a social construct, but already at its nefarious work in the form of racism, so that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities dutifully rejected their mongrels and forced the creation of new post-contact peoples. I am not attempting to exaggerate for effect or be sarcastic here. This is how much of this early material comes across, as if there is no other way that new peoples could come about, that they could not possibly come from positive origins in new circumstances.

Part of this model of Northwest Métis origins and development as peoples is unwitting projection of apparent present conditions into the past. The Northwest Métis were explicitly driven out of their homes in Red River by a whole range of tactics in order to allow the imposition of colonial settler property and legal regimes. Many of them ended up forced to build homes and communities on the literal interstices of the settler land survey system, in the road allowances where they were treated as squatters whose homes could be destroyed at any time. The Northwest Métis in alberta during the great depression were so impoverished that their already precarious access to work due to racism, racism tied to both their linguistic and phenotypical characteristics, made them into a "problem" for the province. In time Northwest Métis activists and allies won the creation of the alberta metis settlements, and then had to hang on for dear life as the province promptly unilaterally deleted four of them. Until very recently, no matter how many family ties Northwest Métis had with First Nations kin, they were barred in practice if not explicitly in law, from cohabiting with any of their First Nations kin who lived on reserve. On top of that, of course people on reserve had their own struggles and didn't always have capacity to help, no matter how badly they wanted to. I agree, this indicates a state of in-betweenness for Northwest Métis in these particular times. But these are in no way inherent to being Northwest Métis. We have our own interrelated and unique cultures and languages that attach to a core of Plains Cree, Woodland Cree, and Denesuline cultural and linguistic practice.

I should also note that there are other post-contact peoples, from the Oji-Cree, to the Choctaws, to the Seminoles. I have never seen or read them constructed as archetypal "people in between" heedless of the fact that they share the physical characteristics of so-called "mixed-blood" or "mixed-race," and intense involvement in such areas of labour and expertise as trade, translation, diplomacy, and ceremony. These are completely logical areas for post-contact peoples to develop their own initial niches in too. The land was already full before they emerged as independent peoples, and that meant as a long term strategy they couldn't just try to muscle somebody who already established out. Even if they had considered such a strategy, probably the sharp contrast between their situation and that of europeans, who were backed up by endless means of warmaking and apparently endless numbers of desperate and expendable people, brought them to their senses right quick. And please note I described these as "initial niches," because over time each post-contact Indigenous people has developed their own unique relationships to the land.

Representative ancient greek wine mixing vessel profiles, from the university of oxford classical art research centre, 2018. Representative ancient greek wine mixing vessel profiles, from the university of oxford classical art research centre, 2018.
Representative ancient greek wine mixing vessel profiles, from the university of oxford classical art research centre, 2018.

All of which begs the question of why the fact that Northwest Métis are not inherently people in between and did not develop out of some weird anomalous status has been so hard for both euro-north americans and many First Nations people to appreciate. There must be something that acted as an incredibly powerful screen, quite apart from any wishful thinking in the form of canadian propaganda. A something that also explains how Northwest Métis could get caught up in this "people in between" model beyond the specifics of the immediate late twentieth century past in particular. Red River Métis were not in between, they were in front.

A part of the explanation is revealed I think in Celia Morgan's 2015 collection of papers on history-making and remembering in southern ontario from 1860 to 1980. The paper of particular interest here is set out as chapter two, in which Morgan analyses the historical views of Six Nations historians Milton Martin and Elliott Moses. In the course of this analysis, Morgan described the impacts of enfranchisement, the process of leaving "Indian status" under the canadian Indian Act. This could be imposed involuntarily, as all too many Indigenous women know too well, or voluntarily in order to access post-secondary education or purchase land. Compulsory enfranchisement could be imposed on status Indian men until 1961. Whether voluntary or involuntary, enfranchisement had serious impacts on a person subject to it. They were no longer allowed to live on reserve, and this often produced serious estrangement from the enfranchisee's family, because they could not readily visit or spend time with their relatives and friends there. Being a "civilized Indian" was a serious social and professional handicap if the enfranchisee did not have solid settler sponsors, even more so if they were not white-passing. It was not unusual for enfranchisees to struggle to find more than menial or short term work, especially if they did not have post-secondary education before their enfranchisement. Here indeed were people caught bitterly in between. Even if socially and economically successful, they were under pressure to disclaim and even be ashamed of their origins. Very few status Indians chose to enfranchise. It wasn't hard to see that it was a huge gamble at best.

Many of the pieces familiar from the story of "the people in between" are recognizable here. Lacking a place in either "world," forced to keep quiet about their origins due to racism and social hostility. The controversies about status and family at Kahnawake were regularly percolating up into the news in the late twentieth century through the turn to the twenty-first. Most of that news coverage did very little to put the conflicts over who had the right to live there and whether that should be determined in part or in whole by the Indian Act provided any historical context. Just little things like the fact that Kahnawake is an ancient and reused Six Nations site, that it was "refounded" by french missionaries and then populated with a diverse population of Indigenous refugees fleeing disease and war. The long struggle to wrest control of the community out of the hands of the jesuits, and then deal with the impact of colonial attempts to redefine who the people of Kahnawake were and are to colonial advantage. All very complicated, and the vast majority of it having nothing to do with Northwest Métis, but providing a dangerously attractive model of what "mixedness" of heritage and culture supposedly means.

Now, let's take a step back and consider for a moment what the early conditions were for the proto-Northwest Métis. It was a very different time. The number of europeans was generally few, and they preferred to stay close to or right inside their forts and fancy towns. The land was full of Indigenous nations sorting out how to interact with the strange newcomers who didn't seem to know how to behave. At first, people europeans would understand as "mixed-race" tended to remain in Indigenous communities rather than stay in colonial ones, and that seemed to suit the europeans fine and helped avoid awkward questions. And yes, those people wound up in lots of apparently "in between" roles, helping people who had different languages and different cultures to interact peacefully. But over time, something interesting began to happen, something that europeans at least had never contemplated. Those people they considered "mixed race" began developing their own relationships to the land. They could continue to trade, translate, negotiate, and so on. But those aren't really bases for culture. Relationships with the land are. As those relationships with the land grew, those proto-Métis began to intermarry among their own communities. They developed recognizable languages and material culture. They were not by definition "in between," if they ever were.

But, there were people in between. Just not the people we are usually encouraged to think of.

Those people were "settlers," front line colonists encouraged to go to the very edges of where the colonial authorities had any sort of real control. Their task, to establish footholds in Indigenous lands, rationalizations for imposing dominion land surveys, building roads, and running in first the british military, then the northwest mounted police. Oh, and missionaries of course. This was a hard place to be, whether the people in question were officially homesteading or seeking to get rich quick by land speculation or following a gold rush. They went in convinced there were no laws, and their compatriots acted like it too, ignoring the laws of the Indigenous nations they imposed on, then bewailing violence among themselves and between themselves and Indigenous people. Getting much needed supplies could be very difficult, after all, these colonists didn't know how to live on the land. They were more like the model we can still read and watch in mainstream science-fiction, supplied from the outside in their efforts to "terraform." Most of the settlers were from impoverished backgrounds, and their struggles to make a living could brutalize them further as they struggled to deal with debts from loans and taxes. Pinned between the ambitious and richer authorities to the east, who demanded crops and minerals at cutthroat prices for resale at obscene profit and land taxes besides, other aggressive settlers, and disrupted and pressured First Nations, they suffered the brunt of retaliation for unjust and violent colonial policies. All too often, they took active part in the violence knowingly and certain they had their god on their side.

This is another important part of the appeal of calling Northwest Métis "the people in between." It distracts from a complex and unhappy heritage that came out of the impacts of developing colonial policy that embedded stereotypes of people according to sex, class, and race, and then frankly manipulated them into playing specific roles over time by building up social structures that channeled them into those roles. To acknowledge who is actually defined by their "in-betweenness" historically is uncomfortable and awkward. But I think that it would be much easier for non-Indigenous canadians to develop, embody, and enact a constructive and positive culture if they stopped trying to deny their connections to that in between past and imposing it on Northwest Métis or any Indigenous person at all. After all, there is nothing demanding that they stay or become "in between" now, anymore than there was ever a reason for Northwest Métis to.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2021
Last Modified: Sunday, December 6, 2020 22:58:56